Signing a marquee free agent to a long-term deal sounds appealing to a fan base whether their team is rebuilding, on the brink of contention, or just trying to remain on top. On the other hand, a poorly considered big-dollar signing can set back an organization for years and draw the scorn of those same fans.
In Seattle, a segment of Mariners fans are eager to see their club pursue high-profile — and costly — free agents to help snap its league-leading 15-season postseason drought. They want see the likes of Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Yoenis Cespedes, Dexter Fowler, Jose Bautista, or Edwin Encarnacion playing for the home team next season.
On the surface, it’s tough to argue with this rationale. Imagine Chapman closing games or a player like Cespedes or Fowler extending the team’s already formidable lineup. Who wouldn’t want to see the Mariners chase these kind of stars?
Jerry Dipoto. That’s who.
You see, the Mariners’ general manager routinely cites his preference to make trades rather than bid on expensive free agents. He views free agency as a means to supplement His club’s roster, not acquire major pieces.
Why exactly is Dipoto reluctant to pursue high-profile free agents?
Perhaps, he doesn’t want to go down the path he did while serving as general manager of the Los Angeles Angels. During Dipoto’s stay in Anaheim, he signed two high-profile free agents — Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton — at the behest of his owner, Arte Moreno.
The acquisition of Pujols and Hamilton continues to have payroll and roster repercussions for Dipoto’s former club. In 2016, the Angels had 31-percent of their payroll obligated to the pair and didn’t get their money’s worth.
Pujols is a future Hall of Famer, but the 37-year-old is no longer an elite-level performer — closer to league-average — and is set to make $27 million in 2017. To make matters worse, he still has five years and $140 million remaining on his contract. Will Angels fans look back favorably on his deal if he doesn’t lead the Angels to the postseason during the remainder of his contract?
Hamilton’s situation is more complicated.
After self-reporting a substance abuse relapse prior to the 2015 season, the Angels traded Hamilton to his former team — the Texas Rangers — for no one. Moreover, they agreed to pay the majority of the $79.5 million remaining on his deal. Despite being released by Texas in August, the former American League Most Valuable Player is set to be paid $26.4 million by the Angels in 2017.
Considering Dipoto’s experience with bloated, long-term deals in Anaheim, I see why he prefers the trade market to overbidding on players destined to jeopardize his club’s financial and roster flexibility. The harsh reality of free agency is that every aggressive buyer will eventually make a few deals that won’t pan out.
For Seattle fans, the most recent free agent signing to go sideways involved infielder Chone Figgins, who came over from the Angels in a four-year/$36 million deal prior to the 2010 season. His signing was a complete a fiasco.
Just how bad was Figgins? His on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) was 109 points lower during his first season with the Seattle than it had been during his six previous years with Los Angeles.
Unfortunately for Figgins and his new club, first year was his best. In total, he slashed just .227/.302/.283 during his 1209 plate appearances as a Mariner. After three seasons, Seattle management had seen enough and released the former all-star despite the fact they still owed him $9 million.
Look no further than the free agent class of 2015 to find more recent examples of questionable deals. I’ve put together two tables listing the ten most expensive free agent starting pitchers and position players (based on total dollars). You’ll quickly see that even the good teams can miss on free agent signings.
To help simplify comparisons, I’m using the FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR) to contrast each player’s success prior to and after their respective free agent deals. While fWAR shouldn’t be used as a stand-alone metric to analyze performance, it does lend itself to providing a snapshot of a player’s relative value from season-to-season.
|Name||New Team||Salary ($MM)||Years||Age at Signing
||2015 fWAR||2016 fWAR|
The most notable starters available from a year ago were David Price and Zack Greinke. Both finished second in their respective league’s Cy Young Award voting and were the best rewarded free agents last offseason. Yet, both regressed in 2016 — based on their fWAR.
Price’s 2016 value fell from the prior season, but he still managed to lead the majors in starts and innings pitched during his first year with the Boston Red Sox.
I suspect “Sawx” fans are split on the southpaw’s deal, especially after he surrendered five earned runs in less than four innings during his lone postseason start. Red Sox Nation will have six more years to debate the wisdom of signing the former Cy Young Award winner.
During his first year with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Greinke lost time to injury and delivered his lowest value since becoming a full-time starter in 2008. Arizona fans may be wondering what to expect from an ace who’s still owed $72.5 million and under contract through his 37-season. Perhaps, the Snakes will attempt to move their high-priced starter as Buster Olney of ESPN suggests.
The most expensive — and disappointing — position player was Jason Heyward of the World Series champion Chicago Cubs. His .631 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) ranked number-144 among major leaguers qualified for batting title consideration. Only two players — shortstops Alexei Ramirez and Adeiny Hechavarria — were lower in the category than the Cubs outfielder.
|Name||Team||Salary ($MM)||Years||Age at Signing
||2015 fWAR||2016 fWAR|
Watching their beloved Cubs finally win the Fall Classic probably helped some fans overlook Heyward’s poor 2016 performance. But, what if Chicago had lost to the Cleveland Indians? Would fans have been as willing to accept a two-win player due to make $28.2 million next year?
Heyward wasn’t the only everyday player to slip last season. Justin Upton and Chris Davis each under-performed during the first year of their long-term deals. After inking a deal with the Detroit Tigers, Upton had his lowest fWAR since 2008. Now, the Tigers are looking for ways to reduce their bloated payroll after missing the postseason for a second consecutive season.
Moving Upton and his large contract would help the club achieve their goal of shedding salary. Yet, how many takers will be willing to take on the remaining five years and $110.6 million remaining on his deal? A few perhaps, but not many.
Davis re-signed with his former club — the Baltimore Orioles — and saw his OPS plummet by 131 points, while his fWAR dropped by more than 50-percent last season. Will the slugging first baseman — who’s still owed $138 million through the 2022 season — bounce back or does his shrinking value signal the onset of his inevitable decline? The answer will influence the trajectory of the Orioles for the foreseeable future.
Not every big-ticket free agent signing was a disappointment — far from it. The Washington Nationals have to be ecstatic about the production of second baseman Daniel Murphy. The same must hold true for utility-man Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs and pitchers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija of the San Francisco Giants.
Another player who returned to his old team last offseason was Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets. Although hobbled by injuries, he managed to hit 31 home runs and slash .280/.354/.530 and led the Mets to the postseason for a second consecutive season.
Cespedes had an opt-out clause in his deal and is once again on the market. It’ll be interesting to watch the bidding unfold for the 31-year-old. Will he ever repeat his career-high fWAR from 2015 or will Mets fans currently griping about his departure eventually look back and be glad he left?
One year after signing their deals, approximately 50-percent of the players listed above experienced an appreciable drop in value. Some were due to injury, while others were likely caused by regression. Certainly, some of these players can bounce back next season. Hopefully, they will. But, what if they don’t and are signed to long-term deals?
When an aging Howie Kendrick or an injured Gerardo Parra scuffles, it’s not going to decimate an organization — they have short-term deals. But, the same can’t be said if Davis or Greinke don’t bounce back.
The Orioles and Diamondbacks don’t have the deep pockets needed to absorb the financial hit of an under-achieving long-term deal. As we’ve seen, even a big market club like the Angels can be sidetracked by a costly deal gone wrong (Hamilton) or by over-committing to an aging player (Pujols).
In the Mariners’ case, they have several older players under contract. A couple of them are likely to under-perform their compensation by the end of their respective deals. Let’s look at the largest contracts currently on Seattle’s ledger.
|Name||Salary Remaining ($MM)||Expires After||2017 Age||2015 fWAR||2016 fWAR|
Although he’s performed superbly to date, there’s a risk that Nelson Cruz could suddenly play like the 37-year-old he’ll be by mid-season. Fortunately for Seattle, his deal is relatively inexpensive and short.
Hisashi Iwakuma has never pitched 180 or more innings in consecutive seasons during his 15-year career — he threw 199 innings in 2016. It’s worth noting his option for 2018 vests at $15 million, if the veteran pitches 125 or more innings next season.
Staff ace Felix Hernandez is now on the wrong side of 30 and has seen his fWAR decline for the second consecutive season. Regardless of how he performs, Felix will make approximately $26.9 million during each of the next three seasons.
Robinson Cano is currently the best player on the Mariners and one of the best in the game, but he’s under contract through his age-40 season. How will Seattle fans view him — and his contract — if they don’t win a World Series during his remaining prime years and can’t add players due to his large contract during the twilight of his career?
All things considered, Dipoto’s free agency approach makes sense. Sure, adding another thirty-something from a field that includes Cespedes, Fowler, Bautista, and Encarnacion sounds enticing. But, doing so would take his new franchise down the same bumpy road as his old one. That’s a route Dipoto isn’t likely to choose ever again.
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